The Man Who Knew Too Much

Never work with children and animals, runs the old show-business saw. Film-makers might be wise to add to this advice: never make a feature of a catchy song , for it will grow greedy and swallow the film. The history of popular music is littered with songs from long-forgotten films – perhaps the classic example is the song from Hall Bartlett’s Unchained, a pleasant but unexciting flick about a California prison with an enlightened governor, now notable only for the unwitting film debut of Dexter Gordon who just happened to be on hand, and its Melody which became one of the most-recorded songs of all time.

Unchained was made in 1955, the same year that Hitchcock made this remake of his own 1934 film. Presumably he wasn’t completely satisfied with the early version, so you’d expect him to make sure he got it right this time. But The Man Who Knew Too Much doesn’t come easily to mind when you think of the Hitchcock greats. I bet you’d all recognise the song though. It’s as much part of Doris Day as the yellow basket was part of Ella.

This is all rather unfair to a fine film. If it sits in the shadow of North by North West or Rear Window it’s probably because James Stewart doesn’t sparkle like Cary Grant, and Doris Day can’t counter his hapless Ordinary Joe with the same touch of glamour that Grace Kelly could give him. Still, the pair of them carry off their portrayal of an unlikely couple wandering blindly into a net of international intrigue, espionage and assassination with their son – the sort of winsome brat so beloved of 50s American cinema – as the McGuffin. You do have to wonder how an international singing star manages to settle down to a life as mother and wife to a gauche Indiana quack. There’s a story here, hinted at but never explicitly told, which would make more sense if Jimmy were Doris’s shrink, but anybody who thought Doris Day was there just for her voice and were unaware that she could act too would be seriously impressed by the scene in which her husband has her all but begging for her medication.

This is good Hitchcock. The crucial scene in the Albert Hall is breathtaking, real edge-of-the-seat stuff. Will The Man Who Knew Too Much eventually be elevated to its rightful place in the pantheon? Who knows – whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see…

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

How do you think you’d fare if you went to Hollywood big shots these days for money to make a critique of the mental health service? You’d probably not be sectioned for it but you might be laughed out of town. Mind you, if it’s the more laid-back 1975 and you have Kirk Douglas and Son behind it, the project had a fair chance. It turned out to be not just a blockbuster but one one of the defining films of its time.

Although to call it a critique of the mental health services is to miss the point. It’s as much a mental hospital story as if… is a ripping boys’ school yarn. It’s a story of its time, and its time wasn’t morning-after-the-summer-of-love 1975, when the Yom Kippur war and the subsequent oil crisis shook everybody out of babyboomer idealism and planted tehir feet firmly in the mud. It’s a film ten years after its time and belongs to those heady days of revolutionary optimism in which Ken Kesey wrote the novel. It’s the tale of the rebel pitted against a calculating, controlling and oh-so-reasonable establishment that crushes the human spirit, and it might have been waiting for Jack Nicholson to come along. If that’s the case it’s certainly no worse for the wait.

It’s also, in a curious way, a love story. Nicholson’s character shouldn’t be in a mental hospital, but he’s an accomplished player of the system who wangles commitment as a way of easing the passage of his short prison sentence for the statutory rape of a girl “fifteen going on thirty-five”. One inside he meets his nemesis in the form of control freak Louise Fletcher who, he realised to late, has made a career out of bringing her charges under her complete control and has the power to detain indefinitely. Oh, how these two need each other! For Fletcher, the wild and wayward Nicholson is a challenge to be tamed and brought under her control. And Nicholson just has to break the ice-cool Fletcher; rumple the perfect hair and soil the crisp white uniform. It’s going to be a titanic struggle, and as with the titanic struggles of the day it’s always likely to end in mutual destruction.

The two leads play it to perfection. Jack Nicholson has been playing Randall McMurphy all his career, but the real tour de force is Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched. Her buttoned down, oh-so-reasonable menace comes across with great subtlety. You want to find a heart of gold inside there, but of course there is none.

Was this the last of the truly great Hollywood films? Maybe not, but Hollywood won’t be making many more of this calibre.

A Beautiful Mind

A biography of a distinguished mathematician seems an unlikely source for an Oscar-winning blockbuster. But it’s precisely that aspect, coupled with real curiosity about the work as well as the life of John Forbes Nash, a brilliant but eccentric character (who is still alive so I’d better watch my step), that drew me to it. I never distinguished myself at maths but I penetrated the subject far enough beyond the tedium of the way it’s taught in schools to retain a fascination for it.

What we get is a film that dwells on eccentricity at the expense of mathematics. As a portrait of a man battling with some pretty fearsome devils – Asperger’s syndrome, one assumes, to start with and ultimately a nasty case of paranoid schizophrenia. The central enigma is the demarcation line between what is real and what is Nash’s delusions. By keeping it that simple, it works pretty well as a crowd-pleasing thriller. There’s always the old question to ask about “why now?” Why choose 2002 to make a film which centres on whether or not the threat of terrorist attack on US soil is real or fantasy. Can there be parallels with the real world being hinted at here?

All the same, I get a strange feeling with this film that I’ve seen it all before. These diaries are, for the most part, impressions and not studies. One of these days, though, I’d like to do a thorough analysis of the films of Modern Hollywood (say, post-Jaws), and see just how far each and every big Hollywood production follows the same schema; psychological buttons pushed, emotional strings pulled, all at carefully-planned strategic points. The result is a film that is seductively easy to watch, that draws you right into it, and leaves you afterwards feeling strangely, empty, like a Chinese meal.

What did I learn about John Forbes Nash? Nothing at all, very much, that I didn’t know already. That he was brilliant and arrogant; that like many with an autistic-spectrum condition he could be very charming; that he could make a right fool of himself in public places. Some things I knew about seem to have been carefully airbrushed out, not least his alcoholism and his bisexual promiscuity. Anybody hoping to learn about what Nash actually did would be disappointed. He is best-known for game theory, and this is barely hinted at – after losing a game of Go he complains that Go was a flawed game because he had played first and played a perfect strategic game so should have won (Nash later invented Hex as a game similar to Go that could always be won as suggested.) Any maths heavier than that is hinted as by the stereotypical blackboard scrawl of the geek. Yes, Nash isn’t to be seen as a beautiful mind at all, but as a one-man freak show. Well, what do you expect of somebody so sad as to be a mathematician?

All right. I enjoyed it, and I thought Russell Crowe pulled it off with surprising aplomb. But I didn’t wake up this morning still haunted by it, and I doubt if I’ll remember much about it in a couple of weeks time.

Great Expectations

I used to think of Great Expectations as the Dickens novel for people (like me) who hated Dickens. That was before I discovered Bleak House of course (but then, for some reason, Dickens’s masterpiece was never on the menu when I was a child: if it had been I might have viewed the man more benevolently). Although it contains a fair slice of grotesque caricature, Great Expectations seemed more than any other Dickens to be about moral ambiguity, and thus surprisingly modern.

David Lean managed to tap into this well. Dickens was always going to be a gift to the cinema when it finally arrived, and perhaps because of that pervading sense of moral ambiguity Great Expectations was the novel best suited to the screen. From the shocking moment early on when young Pip in the graveyard runs into the terrifying convict Magwitch, attention is demanded. After that, the story of the rise of young Pip under the influence of the bizarre Miss Havisham and a mystery benefactor unfolds relentlessly towards the inevitable bursting of his bubble. Some parts of the story are missed out, as is the wry Dickens commentary, but they aren’t missed. The only thing that grates is the false happy ending. The story of ambiguity ought to end as Dickens, that consummate wordsmith, ended it. Ambiguously.

Can great novels be made into great films? This is undoubtedly a great film. Maybe it depends on whether you think it’s a great novel or not. I’m inclined to think it is.


In which Malcolm McDowell reprises the role of Mick Travis, the unlikely revolutionary schoolboy of if…

It’s four years later and Travis is now a trainee coffee salesman with the knack of always landing on his feet. Presumably this natural jamminess is the reason why he is not banged up for mass murder, but all is not what it seems, as we shall see. So, we follow our hero through a series of increasingly surreal picaresque adventures and mishaps from which Travis, however he may be humiliated or tortured, invariably emerges better off than he was before. Until, eventually, he pushes his luck once too often and ends up in prison. But then, as Ralph Richardson remarks at one point, the gap between the House of Lords and Pentonville Prison is very small indeed.

It might easily have been from an original idea by Fielding or Smollet. I believe that the true inspiration was Voltaire’s Candide, and that fits for it is a powerful political satire of its time and one which – thinking of Osborne and Mandelson on the yacht – is just as applicable today even if it dates from the days of Tiny Rowland’s Lonrho and the unacceptable face of capitalism. It’s also hard not to see a parallel with Evelyn Waugh. Travis’s decline and fall is not at all unlike that of Paul Pennyfeather.

This is a big film – over three hours long – and it’s baggy and sprawling, but it’s never dull. Its scale only serves to underline the monstrosity of the corruption and exploitation that it satirizes. There’s also a fabulous soundtrack by Alan Price to hold the attention. Price and his ensemble appear initially as a kind of Greek chorus, stopping the flow to give a detached musical commentary. In a typically surreal touch though, Price and his band become an integral part of the action. (And if that weren’t enough, we find in the closing scenes Lindsay Anderson auditioniong Mick Travis for the lead role in his film if… and at this point we’ve left the realms of Voltaire and Waugh and plunged into the bizarre world of Flann O’Brien.

It’s all quite bonkers, of course, and quite magnificent. A wonderful film.


Despite what we might want to believe, social revolutions are seldom if ever triggered by a single event, instigated by a single individual, or completed within the space of a single year. Western society had been turning itself inside out since at least 1945, possibly since 1918. But looking back, one might recognise 1968 as the year when western society had to acknowledge that it could never be the same again. Event after event underlined the crisis – the Paris uprisings, Grosvenor Square, the Prague Spring and its brutal suppression, the Chicago Democratic Convention, all with Vietnam providing the soundtrack. And before any of these events happened, Lindsay Anderson was filming if…

It looks like a school story, right up to the shocking climax, but it is transparently allegorical. A boys public school as a microcosm of British culture, of the old order that must now fall. And in two parallel stories we follow two of the boys who are formed by their environment. First there is Jute, a naive new boy, gradually being assimilated and accepted into the culture. And then there’s Mick Travis, a sixth-former whose non-comforming instincts begin with growing a moustache over the summer (but keeping it well hidden from authority until he can shave it off), and are pushed by oppression and persection into taking a bloody revenge on the school and the establishment figures who run it.

Something was certainly in the air in that turbulent year. It was something inextricably linked with youth: a generation no longer prepared to sit and watch the follies of its elders being continued into perpetuity and which actively rose against it. It was futile, of course, if total revolution was its aim, but nothing would ever be the same again.

This is a quite magnificent film, one that captures the 1968 mood perfectly, and it should be ranked up there with the very best. The biggest disgrace is that only very recently has it been available on DVD.


Long before there was James Bond, in an age when the cinema was still a novelty and the enemy was Kaiser Bill, there was Richard Hannay, suave hero of John Buchan’s riproaring yarns. Buchan may or may not have realised that his brand of muscular adventure was perfect fodder for the film industry but she sure scored a bullseye. All that was needed to make it memorable was the budding talent of Alfred Hitchcock. Now why would somebody want to make a film with slippery Germans in 1935 of all years? Just as the year before Robert Graves had written a Roman epic also full of slippery Germans? Was something going on that not everybody was seeing properly? It’s even updated to the 1930s.

So, a mysterious and very frightened woman takes refuge in Hannay’s flat. Before the sun rises she’s dead with Hannay’s breadknife in her back, and there the fun begins. There are spies and there are establishment figures of decidedly fuzzy loyalty. There’s a dramatic escape by train including an episode in a compartment with an unknown woman, and there’s a dramatic confrontation in a wild and lonely place. A quarter of a century on, Hitchcock will do much the same thing again, in colour and with the inimitable Cary Grant in the lead, as North by North West. It will be a great film but it won’t be half as charming as this one.


To my shame it’s only four years since I read Watership Down for the first time (it was one of the very first books I obtained through Bookcrossing.) For more than a quarter of a century before that, the thought of a book or a film about anthropomorphic bunnies made me a bit queasy. But I loved the book because it was dark and not in the least sentimental, and had a great deal to say about the human condition and the state of the world.

It took until now to see the film, and then only prompted by the fact that Tom Ewing’s excellent Popular blog had reached 1979 and Art Garfunkel’s strikingly dark and moving song Bright Eyes, taken from the soundtrack. The song is woven into the fabric of the film but I was a little surprised to find that it didn’t dominate as I’d feared. Instead there’s a score by Malcolm Williamson that owes a great deal to Vaughan Williams, and that’s apt because what this film does most beautifully is to evoke the countryside of he Hampshire/Berkshire borders perfectly. So lovingly has the background been created in watercolour that sometimes it was easy to forget that this was an animation. Nor was it in the least idealised. This is a countryside complete with electricity pylons and full of hidden dangers: badgers and foxes, hawks, humans with snares, and other rabbits less than cuddly of demeanour.

A hefty novel – 500 pages in this case – is always difficult to translate into a manageable film, let alone an animation, but this film remains remarkably true to teh original. Some minor things have been changed, a lot has been missed out, but nothing has been lost. It’s understandable that the horrors of the Efrafa warren are focused on, and I thought it was a shame that the effete and over-sophisticated rabbits of Cowslip’s warren were glossed over (although I actively disliked this bit of the novel – it came across to me as anti-intellectual, although I did get the point.) But it keeps the dark flavour of the novel intact.

It’s about as far from Disney as you can get, but it’s none the worse for that.

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

1967.  Martin Luther King is making headlines at the head of the civil rights movement.  In a third of the States, mixed-race marriages are illegal.  Vigilantes hunt down voter registration campaigners.  Hell, killing a Negro doesn’t even count as murder.  And the Oscar for Best Picture goes (all right, will go to) a film in which a black FBI man comes face to face with a rednecked Alabama police chief. 

White America is polarised between the old-guard bigots and the liberal intelligentsia intent on sweeping them away. But what happens when those liberals come under scrutiny?  What happens when the daughter of a crusading San Francisco newspaper proprietor brings home the man she’s fallen head-over-heels in love with and plans to marry come hell or high water?  And the man concerned is a brilliant doctor and medical academic who just happens to be Sidney Poitier?  And what about his parents? And, er, the black skivvy in this exemplary liberal household?  The racial revolution of the sixties has been the subject of a lot of films, but not many of them have turned the spotlight so searchingly on the motives of the white middle-class campaigners.

For all that it had its finger on the Zeitgeist (as it were), it’s a curiously old-fashioned piece.  By that I don’t mean that its mid-sixties ambience seems ‘dated’ now – it’s of its time and thet’s fair enough.  But it looks so terribly stagey.  The most surprising thing about it is that it won the Oscar that year for Best Original Screenplay, because it looks like a theatrical performace, acted out before a painted backdrop of San Francisco Bay as if it were a piece of early Alan Ayckbourn.  There are a couple of moments when the action moves away from the house – presumably intended to emphasise the aging  Spencer Tracy’s growing estrangement from the bright young world around him – and they are gruesomely, wince-inducingly, bad.  But it would be unfair to judge the whole film on two short scenes.  It rolls fairly predicatable on to a conclusion in which Tracy gathers all the protagonists around him to give a long speech like an avuncular Poirot, and you want to scream at him to stop wittering and get to the point.  Then you remember that Spencer Tracy was seriously ill at the time, that Stanley Kramer didn’t know if he was going to make it through filming, that it was the last scene he would ever record in a long and distinguished career.  He would be dead in just a few days.

Whittaker Prize – Round 7 entry

Friday, 12 September 2008

Schrödinger’s Cat – a nuclear fable

Erwin – that’s my human, Erwin Schrödinger – is having a dinner party.

The good news is that because he’s a strict theoretician he can’t be trusted with anything practical and that includes cooking. He’s asked his friend Nils to do the food. And that means there’ll be lots of herring. Mmm, I could die for herring. And Lise’s here, so it’s always worth lurking under the table because her legs are so smooth and soft to rub up against and she’s always passing me little bits of this and that under the table. The other buggers are too lost in their own world to notice the cat.

The bad news is that because it’s one of Nils’s Danish parties it will go on for hours, and they’ll all get horribly drunk and I’ll have to miaow really loud when it’s time to get them out of the way to let me hunt in peace. Still, it’s not as bad as when Bob Oppenheimer does one of his barbecues and they stuff themselves with Hamburgers and Frankfurters and get drunk very quickly. You’d think Erwin would get upset at the idea of barbecuing his compatriots but he didn’t seem to mind even when Bob boasted about barbecuing Hamburg itself, and he got just as drunk as the rest of them. No, Nil’s parties are something a cat can understand. Nibble a bit, drink a bit, sing a bit, play a bit, sleep a bit. Nibble a bit more, and so on.

Let’s see, who’s here? Erwin Schrödinger you know about. Look, he’s got odd socks on, the silly old thing. One black one and one blue one. I don’t know what he’d do without me to keep him in order. I’ve told you about Nils Bohr who did the food. Bob Oppenheimer’s the one with the black leather brogues, which would be very elegant except for his sweaty feet. Phwarr, best keep away from him. The one with the shorts and the hairy legs is old Albert. Somebody should tell him that shorts just aren’t right when you’re his age. Honestly, you should see all of him, including what’s above the tablecloth. Oh, you have already I see. Yes, he’s the old guy with the big white hair and the whiskers and the permanently worried look. Well, you’d worry if you knew what he knew. Albert and I go back a long way. He once…

Hold on, who’s this? Big furry boots. That can’t be right, not in Boston in August. I’ve never seen these before. Let me have a sniff and rub… Mmm, yes, a new one to me. But this will be the one they called Igor, won’t it. The comrade from Russia, or the Goddamsoviets as Bob insists on calling them. That’s all. Apart from Lise. I’ve told you about Lise already, haven’t I? Lise is my favourite, wouldn’t you know. I’ve tried to get her and Erwin together but she insists they can only have a working relationship. Whatever that means. Excuse me a minute, while I leap upstairs and renew my own working relationship with the gorgeous Lise…

Mmm. That gravlax is just divine. Almost as good as the salted herring, and that’s about as near perfection as you can get. And it’s pure silk. Lise’s dress I mean, not the gravlax, although come to think of it that would be an apt comparison. I could have curled up in her lap for hours. I wonder where she got that from? There’s a war on you know. Even if we’re over here in Boston and not getting the shit bombed out of us, times are still hard. It must be a good life being a theoretical physicist in these times. Or maybe it’s just being a very good-looking female theoretical physicist. None of them are smiling much, except Bob who always seem to be smiling about something.

Of course, they started off talking shop. “Shop” in this case being about making the biggest bangs you can. Bob is pleased with himself about making an exceptionally big bang down in New Mexico a couple of weeks ago, but I don’t think he’s being convincing. If he’s got so much to celebrate, why has he given all the roast beef from his smørrebrød to me? Not that I’m complaining, mind, but there never was such a man for eating beef and now he won’t touch the stuff. And he kept going on about how Lord Vishnu had a point. Don’t tell me he’s found religion.

Never mind. It’s amazing what a few beers with akvavit chasers can do to lighten the atmosphere. Just before they were getting silly over a game of Grenzallee. Don’t expect me to explain the details. Humans can be pretty inscrutable sometimes, particularly when they just sit staring out of the window. Who knows what they might be thinking? One might almost imagine that they are contemplating the origin of the universe, or trying to work out the fine structure of matter. And when they play, they seem to get such easy pleasure from the most trivial things. In the case of Grenzallee, they take turns to call out the names of stations on the Berlin U-Bahn, and the one who says Grenzallee first is the winner. Erwin says it’s a game of great subtlety and complexity, and Bob claims that even as a senior professor at Princeton he can’t make head nor tail of it. I’m not so sure myself. I can sort of see it, and of course Lise has got it sussed but she usually keeps it to herself. Until tonight, because Bob was being even more obtuse than usual under the influence of all that akvavit. So one game went something like this:

“Grenzallee!” says Bob.

Albert puts an avuncular hand on Bob’s arm and tell Bob that that’s just not done.

“Why the hell not?” says Bob, “it’s in the rules – first player can always win by calling Grenzallee.”

“But then there isn’t a game,” says Lise, and she looks at him with those big feline eyes in the way she has that always makes Bob back down. Not without a sigh of protest.

“Friedrichstrasse,” says Albert.

“Onkel Toms Hütte,” says Nils. “I love that one!” I saw Bob give him a kick on the shin.

“Alexanderplatz,” Igor growled, as if defending his territory.

“Sophie-Charlotte-Platz,” Lise offered. “A blow for women.”

“Sullivan Square,” Bob says, still missing the point.

Erwin told Bob gently that he was offside, or that he had fouled out if he so preferred. But the akvavit had lit a fire in Bob’s head. “I never wanted to play this goddamn game,” he snarled. “What’s the point of it, anyway? It’s dumb!”

“Yes, Bob” said Lise. “It’s dumb. War is dumb. At least nobody gets killed playing Grenzallee. But it’s just like this war is going. To win you have to call Grenzallee before your enemies do, otherwise you get eliminated. But you can’t call Grenzallee straight away, because that would be pre-emptive aggression. And now we have the Trinity device…” She fixed Bob with a frozen stare.

The room fell into silence. Even through the akvavit fog, all of them knew that she was talking about Bob’s big bang in New Mexico, and I think the implications of it weighed heavily on all of them.

I thought the party was going to break up, then. It was Igor who saved it.

“But now Germany has surrendered,” he growled, “There is no need to use the Trinity.” He’s got a lovely deep voice, has Igor. Rich and dark and yummy, like yeast extract. “We should all work for peace now.”

Somebody – I suspect Bob – must have gripped the tablecloth because I felt it slide away. I braced myself for things falling on the floor, ready to fly, because things falling on the floor generally mean trouble for the cat in my experience. But no such thing happened. Except for Bob, who hissed about how you could bet we needed Trinity still so long as Joe Stalin was still alive.

“It’s time to drink a toast to absent friends,” said Nils. Ever the peacemaker is Nils, must be the Scandinavian blood. This means they’re about to get maudlin. Time for a nap under the table, I think. With half an eye and half an ear open, of course, in case anything interesting happens.

“I wonder how young Werner is?” said Albert. “He was a bright lad. We could have done with him over here. I worry about him.”

“Heisenberg, you mean?” said Nils. “I saw him a couple of years ago, when I was still in Copenhagen. I still don’t know what he was up to.”

“When he wouldn’t leave Germany I was scared for all of us,” said Albert. “Who knows how he might have beaten us to a Trinity device, and then where would we all be?”

“Or he stayed behind to make sure the Nazi atom project was held back,” said Lise. “Werner wasn’t stupid and I like to believe the best of people.”

“You could never be certain with Heisenberg,” said Igor. “You never knew where he was from one minute to the next. And when you did, you couldn’t tell how fast he was going with his thinking. A slippery one, he was.”

“Slippery enough to survive the Nazis, I’ll bet,” said Erwin. It’s all a matter of probability. We have no way of knowing if he is dead or alive, in a prison camp or in a research facility. So in a way he is both.”

I could see the black brogues and the furry boots twitching. From this I deduced that Bob and Igor were feeling sceptical.

“You mean if he’s in a prison camp he’s dead even if he ‘s breathing?” said Nils.

“Well, just as a demonstration, take my cat, Fritz”

Uh-oh. Both my eyes are fully open now, both ears erect, tail twitching. Mind Albert’s legs…

“Suppose we put him in a box, like this.” The legs of Erwin’s chair slid backwards. Oh no. Not the box again.

I was going to tell you earlier, wasn’t I, about me and Albert. Albert was here once when Erwin had just had some new equipment delivered so there were empty boxes all over the apartment and they needed to be explored, didn’t they? And one of them had a spider in it, so of course I had to pounce. As I pounced the box slid backwards, and as I caught the spider it slid forward again. And Albert was staring. “Supposing Fritz was a photon of light,” he said. And from there he got, somehow, to converting matter into energy. And that led to big bangs in New Mexico. Ugh!

So I’m chary of boxes now. You never know what might happen.

So, I’d have been out of the room in a flash if Igor hadn’t grabbed at me with his great big hairy hands. Of course, I hissed and bit and scratched and spread out my legs to stop them putting me in the box, but what could I do? There’s six of them. And then I’m in the box and the lid comes down. Now, I don’t mind the twilight as you know, but I hate total darkness. There was a metal tube in there, too, and a little glass bottle, and a smell of marzipan. I didn’t like it one little bit.

“We have no way of knowing whether Fritz is alive or dead,” Erwin was saying.

Oh yes there bloody is, I thought. I let them know by yowling and scratching on the cardboard walls.

“At any moment, but we can never know which moment, the radioactive sample might decay, and cause the Geiger tube to trigger a hammer which will break the bottle of cyanide which will kill Fritz. And we have no way of knowing if Fritz is dead or alive. So in a way Fritz is both dead and alive at the same time.

“But God knows,” Bob said. Or Yahweh, or Allah, or Lord Vishnu…”

“You were saying earlier that we’d all become God since Trinity,” said Lise.

There was a loud explosion.

Well, I was bloody furious wasn’t I? So would you be if you’d just been shut in a box to prove some point of metaphysics. No way of knowing if I’m dead or alive indeed.

Erwin tried to make it up to me with a tickle and a piece of herring. I wasn’t going to let him get away with that so easily. That’s why he’s sucking at his arm and rubbing it.

So there you have it. They’ve gone all quiet now. Somebody’s put the radio on. Benny Goodman, that’s nice. I like Benny Goodman. Igor is telling the others how Jazz is so decadent and couldn’t we listen to a bit of Shostakovich , but nobody’s taking him too seriously. Not even Igor himself. I think for all he’s been singing all those maudlin Russian songs about yearning for home, he secretly likes it here. He likes Benny Goodman really. He keeps talking to Nils in a low voice about working with him in America, and Bob keeps interrupting.

Now it’s the radio’s turn to interrupt. It’s quite blunt about it. “We interrupt this programme to bring you a newsflash,” it said. Something about the war in Japan.

And a Big Bang.

And you could hear a pin drop. Well, not literally, but you know what I mean. Twelve shoes under the tablecloth, all suddenly motionless.

The tablecloth slid. Igor this time, definitely Igor. A plate crashed to the floor and broke. Investigation yielded a morsel of herring on a furry boot.

Time held it’s breath.

Bob broke the silence. I didn’t like his voice. It was like Erwin’s when he knows I’m going to the vet and there’s nothing I can do about it.

“Grenzallee!” he said.